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Greece's top court roils Turkey over coup extradition

Greece's top court has ruled not to extradite eight officers wanted by Turkey over last year's coup. The decision is likely to further strain relations between Turkey and Europe, but also be instrumentalized by Erdogan.

Greece's top court on Thursday rejected the extradition of eight Turkish officers who fled after July's failed coup attempt, a decision likely to increase tensions across the Aegean Sea.

The Supreme Court ruled that the officers - three majors, three captains and two sergeants - sought by Ankara would not face a fair trial in Turkey, where thousands of soldiers have been arrested or dismissed based on alleged coup ties.

The officers landed a helicopter in northern Greece a day after rogue members in the military staged a failed coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has blamed the movement of US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen.  The officers claimed they had no role in the coup and fled fearing for their lives.

"The possibility of their rights being violated or reduced regardless of the degree of guilt, or the gravity of the crimes they are accused of, does not allow the implementation of extradition rules," the Supreme Court president said.

Extradition would also violate the European Convention on Human Rights, the court said. The decision cannot be appealed.

The court ordered the eight to be released. Their asylum applications were previously denied, but the decision is being appealed in a separate process.

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European values preserved

The case was brought to the Supreme Court after conflicting lower court rulings - to extradite five and not extradite three - were challenged. There was some concern that, given the stakes of the trail's outcome on Turkish-Greek relations, the courts might come under political pressure.

Christos Mylonopoulos, the defendant's lawyer, said the court's decision showed the independence of the court and European values had prevailed

"It is a great victory of the Greek legal system, the dignity of Greek justice was preserved and also the European values and respect for human rights," Mylonopoulos told DW by telephone following the verdict.

The independence and impartiality of Turkey's overburdened judicial system was already in question even before July. Using state of emergency powers granted in the wake of the coup, Erdogan has carried out massive purges and arrests of tens of thousands of people in the military, bureaucracy, media and state. 

At least 300 lawyers and 3,000 judges have been arrested or detained, according to the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE). The president of Turkey's bar association, Metin Feyzioglu, said in a statement last month that the independence and impartiality of the judiciary had been "completely demolished."

"Our citizens no longer trust the judiciary. The judiciary is no longer the guarantee of the country," he wrote. Only 3 percent of Turkish citizens trust the judiciary, according to a poll conducted by the Turkish pollster AKAM in November.

Erdogan's repeated suggestion that Turkey may reimpose the death penalty weakens the case for EU members to extradite alleged coup plotters. 

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Cross-Aegean tensions

The Greek court ruling is likely to raise tensions between Turkey and Greece. The two NATO allies have a deep historic rivalry, but relations have improved over the past decade and half.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement that bilateral relations with Greece would be "comprehensively evaluated."

Ankara accused Athens of not combating terrorism and putting "itself in a position of a country that provides shelter and protection to putschists." Turkey has long accused Greece of harboring far-left DHKP/C militants and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Turkish-Greek relations are complex, with overlapping areas of cooperation and dispute. The NATO allies regularly violate each others air and sea space in contested parts of the Aegean.  The issue over territorial borders has become more intense since July's coup attempt, with Erdogan stoking nationalism at home by questioning the Treaty of Lausanne establishing the present borders.

The Greek court decision comes as Athens and Turkey are in a critical stage of talks to reach a final settlement on the divided island of Cyprus. Greece and the EU also need Turkey to cooperate on controlling migrants crossing the Aegean. 

Militating against deteriorating relations are robust economic ties. Greece plays a major role in Turkey's drive to become a regional hub for oil and gas to Europe.

Instrumentalizing tensions

The Greek court ruling will reverberate within NATO and the EU. Turkey seeks the extradition of dozens of Turkish officers who have sought refuge in NATO countries. While each country makes its own extradition decisions, the Greek Supreme Court's ruling may inform other extradition cases. 

Turkey may therefore huff and puff over the court decision, even making an example out of Greece and escalating tensions in order to send a signal to European political leaders.  Ankara has repeatedly accused the West of harboring "terrorists" and failing to support a democratically elected government following the coup, leading to a steady increase in tensions between the two sides.

However, blaming the West and stiring up nationalism at home, especially against a historic rival like Greece, serves immediate domestic purposes for Erdogan. Turkey will head to the polls in April for a constitutional referendum that, if it passes, will grant Erdogan sweeping powers.

Never one to miss an opportunity to instrumentalize tensions and highlight external threats, Thursday's court verdict in some ways may be a blessing in disguise for Erdogan as he argues Turkey needs a strong leader to counter enemies from within and without.

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